pratchett
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Article
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Culture
Writing

The cult of complaint

In Sydney Review of Books earlier this month, Ivor Indyk lamented the state of literary prizes. The ‘middlebrow’, he claims, is taking over culture (read: the highbrow). The ‘middlebrow’, defined originally as those people who hope eventually to get used to the stuff they ought to like, is a contemptuous term now used to mean those who are narrow in their cultural interests and engagement. (Even the OED states this is ‘colloquial and frequently derogatory’.) Literary prizes are, he claims, are the ‘last bastion’ for ‘literary recognition that is withheld by the marketplace’ – that enervated forum of the middlingly-browed.

I suppose he means that prizes should be awarded on the basis of merit (he excludes ‘appeal’ from the definition of merit), but it sounds as though he thinks this is the same as some kind of predictor of enduring future worth – that the novels to which these glittering prizes are pinned should be known already as the canonical works of the future. The hubris of attempting to divine the lasting impact of a work of literature is one that has been pursued, fruitlessly, since the publishing industry began.

There are a couple of problems with Indyk’s approach – I won’t go so far as to call it an argument, since it reads like the curmudgeonly complaint of old men everywhere since (at least) Ancient Rome. Of course in rallying against Indyk’s opinions I may well be committing GK Chesterton’s error of being wrong about why he is wrong, but that can be for another writer to argue.

What prizes are for, and what they should be for, is recognising the significance of a work at a particular cultural moment. They are deeply contextual, having none of that halo of historical distance that seems to make canonical works glow with self-evident glory. Some lucky few novels written now, prize winners or no, will prove to have enduring significance, articulating to a distant present so perfectly what was happening now, or where that later now’s genesis turned out to be, that they will be rightly regarded as works of prescient genius. But it is only from a position in the ever-moving present that we can judge the past’s apparent self-evidence. Hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty. We don’t yet know what will have proven to be important in the future; that’s why it’s called future imperfect in grammar.

Using the words of others, Indyk expressed his dissatisfaction with those fans of Terry Pratchett who mourned his recent passing. Yet is it surprising that an author who went out of his way to communicate with his readership was mourned by that same readership? Indyk overlooked the fact that Pratchett’s fans mourned his passing because they knew his life. His personality and his struggle with illness, just as much as his satirical fantasies about contemporary culture and politics, drew people to him and his works.

Indyk seems to think that the marketplace is a swelling crowd of populist barbarians – possibly an image that would be appreciated by Pratchett – but not (to his mind) comprised of the ‘true’ readers of literature. Quality and appeal are not mutually exclusive. In attempting to distinguish the ‘marketplace’ from cultural appreciation, Indyk wrests from the readers of books the power to be considered and conscious of what they read. He seems to think that the people who read Pratchett are different from the people who read Marquez, but he has no evidence of this. Certainly I have been an avid consumer of each, and my bookshelves groan under the weight of everything from Shakespeare, Stead, and Steinbeck to Garner (Alan, not Helen, although also Helen), Grisham, and Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl). This is what belies his snobbery, which is everywhere apparent in this column.

Readers of books are not always buried nose-deep in the ‘great works’ or trashy airport purchases. Likewise, just because someone is a festival director, Indyk seems to think that this should disqualify them from having a serious opinion if asked to judge a prize. On the contrary, it indicates a passionate involvement with contemporary authors and readers, and an awareness of the ebb and flow of contemporary consciousness that creeps its way into the books we end up producing – which has almost nothing to do with prizes.

Indyk claims that the bellwether of a judge’s or a panel’s quality is their reaction to poetry. This is an interesting idea, and one that he could have explored more. If a judge or a panel can argue and become passionate about the most condensed textual expression we can create, then their understanding is indeed nuanced and engaged. Resolution amongst a judging panel for ‘excellence in writing’ should certainly engage with a broad range of genres, and those genres should rightly be represented in the shortlisted nominations. However, Indyk paints himself into a corner whereby nobody is fit to judge a prize – not the hoi polloi, not the ivory tower, not the festivalists, and not the grim, thin-lipped politicians.

I am not yet willing to wring my hands. As Neil Gaiman said, ‘make good art’. Obliterating prizes for the sake of fellowships mutes entirely the cultural fanfare around prize winners, and I don’t think that these occasions should be diminished. Why does Indyk think that the current amount of money spent on prizes is a set figure? There is absolutely no reason why the plutocratic Brandis could not fund both prizes and a new fellowship programs, with matched philanthropic support, for different genres. Prizes are poor predictors of enduring appeal or later significance, but they are exceptional boosts to the creative process of hundreds of writers.

 

Image: Ruth_W / Flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Fiona Yardley is a writer, editor, and cultural worker in Sydney.

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Comments

  1. This entire rebuttal to Ivor Indyk by Ruth Yardley is unfortunately built upon a falsehood — that Indyk claims that ‘merit’ is the future value of a piece of literature. Indyk never says this and can’t be assumed to have meant this either, and as such Yardley’s piece (notwithstanding its scatterbrained and rollercoastery approach to logic) is null and void. Indyk actually states that ‘merit’ is about whether a piece of literature is “challenging or innovative”. Nothing is said by Indyk that even slightly references that ‘merit’ is about a work entering the “canon”, as Yardley misleadingly asserts.

    Yardley: “…but it sounds as though he thinks this is the same as some kind of predictor of enduring future worth – that the novels to which these glittering prizes are pinned should be known already as the canonical works of the future…”.

    By opening her key argument with “it sounds as though he thinks”, we have evidence enough that Yardley has shoehorned her preconceived rationalisation into this rebuttal to Indyk. Perhaps some points of Yardley’s are well worth the making, but because they appear here as a response to a more considered and industry-linked piece, the sentences crumble even as they are read.

  2. I’m sorry. I’ve been a reader of Overland for quite some time (I’m in my late thirties) and all the while I’ve been hoping the standard of the writing in the publication will get better and better. But hey, I can’t do it anymore. I’ve had enough. This article is the last straw.

    The author’s argument might have been more effective and worth exploring if it was (a) written more clearly and concisely and (b) grammatically exact, according to written English. Indeed as one commentator has put it, “the sentences crumble”; “its scatterbrained and rollercoastery”.

    It certainly ain’t reader friendly!

    Now I understand the author has a point to make and that it could have been made so much better, and that she aspires to be a cultural commentator and a writer, of sorts. I can’t lay the blame solely with her (but why in such a hurry, my dear?). No. It’s also the fault of Overland. It should be tougher. It’s too soft. Where are the editors? What are they doing? Are they soft in the head?

    So, to the text.

    We read: “Some lucky few novels written now, prize winners or no, will prove to have enduring significance, articulating to a distant present so perfectly what was happening now, or where that later now’s genesis turned out to be, that they will be rightly regarded as works of prescient genius.”

    This is a woeful sentence, and coming from a self-proclaimed ‘Writer’. The ‘Writer’ wants to establish a relationship between the present and the future, but she does it in a convoluted and clunky way. It reads as though her ability to think breaks down half-way through. Towards the end of this sentence quoted above the grammar does break down, becomes incorrect — “or where that later now’s genesis turned out to be, that they will be rightly regarded as works of prescient genius.” Huh? Putting aside the downright ugliness of “that later now’s” (whatever that means), “turned” should in fact read “turns” — it should be in the present simple tense, singular, not the simple past.

    Moreover, the author states that “We don’t yet know what will have proven to be important in the future; that’s why it’s called future imperfect in grammar”, as if she knows what she is talking about, and making a point of it. But there is no future imperfect in English. There’s future perfect. In 2017 I will have been working at XYZ for 4 years, etc. That’s future perfect, continuous. It uses future tense “will” + the present perfect continuous, “have been studying.” And Grammar is the structure of language, of syntax, and its prescriptive, descriptive uses. It is not a prediction of what proves to be important in the future, as the author claims it to be.

    But aside from grammar, the writing is just unclear, hard to follow and, I’m afraid to say, ugly. Literature is about beauty, amongst other things, and we know why when we read ugly writing like this.

    The author writes:
    “the ever-moving present”. Really? is the present always moving, or is it our attention from moment to moment that is moving?

    Again: “the past’s apparent self-evidence”

    If something is apparent it is clearly visible, or obvious. Self-evidence also means obvious, doesn’t need to be explained. So “apparent self-evidence” is a tautology. (And the author proclaims to use a dictionary, citing the OED. For f#@k’s sake!)

    Look, I’m all for a culture of complaint, if it means we get to read better writing!

    And there’s more: “the novels to which these glittering prizes are pinned”.

    Prizes are given, not pinned (you might be thinking of pin the tail on the donkey, darling. You do sound confused).

    Then, yes, there are the cliches: “I have been an avid consumer “; “groan under the weight”.

    And the faulty paragraph constructions. “Certainly I have been an avid consumer of each, and my bookshelves groan under the weight of everything from Shakespeare, Stead, and Steinbeck to Garner (Alan, not Helen, although also Helen), Grisham, and Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl).” And then the author says: “This is what belies his snobbery, which is everywhere apparent in this column.”

    So his (who?) snobbery is everwhere apparent (or is it self-evident?) in “this” column, which makes it YOURS. And this point is made after we are told about the author’s bookshelves.

    Please make it stop!

    And as for Pratchett, the author writes: “His personality and his struggle with illness, just as much as his satirical fantasies about contemporary culture and politics, drew people to him and his works.”

    But what about the writing? Fans of his personality and his struggle, but what do they tell us about the quality of his writing, how does that read ON THE PAGE.

    Overland, I’ve had enough.

  3. Yeah, well, the browser, high versus low, has applied in a long past and still applies, regardless of the argument either way, as we all know well.

  4. I shudder to think that one day there will be no new Stephen King novel to look forward too. Like the Pratchett lovers, I will feel a genuine grief when King dies (hopefully in the distant future). Of course, Harold Bloom came out swinging when King received his first major literary award, and will be apoplectic now King has received the National Medal of Arts. But really, who cares about Bloom when there is Cujo and Carrie and the Number One Fan?

    Doesn’t stop you reading Pessoa, or as much Australian poetry as you can.

    Thanks for this.

  5. Thanks for this, Fiona. It’s great to see another defender of the ‘middle-brow’. Personally, I don’t see why it mattered to Indyk that Pratchett’s death was talked about more than Garcia Marquez’s. I think all that matters should be that the writing is good and readers can connect, on any level, to the work.

  6. I’m onside with the majority of what Yardley says here – just one thing to add about merit, especially in the context of the first comment.

    “Indyk actually states that ‘merit’ is about whether a piece of literature is “challenging or innovative”” – so who is defining what is challenging? How do you define “innovativeness”? Challenging to whom? Challenging in what sense? Clarity of story? Challenging perspectives? these definitions of how prizes “should” be given out are so subjective and broadly defined that it doesn’t make sense to then say that there is a wrong or right way. It also fails to understand the purpose of prizes in a literal sense that they are part of the propagation of creative fields and temptation to become a writer and reward those who “achieve” a level of “cultural” recognition, rather than to designate who is “the best” – which is impossible to define agreeably anyway.

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